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DRAGON SCIENCE: Wisdom of Li Shizhen

Frontiers visits a traditional hospital in Beijing and finds that for Chinese physicians, observation of a patient's tongue is one key to the diagnosis. After the exam, a mixture of herbs is prescribed. Herbal medicine has been practiced in China for thousands of years and, unlike its Western counterpart, its effects are largely empirical. Scientists in the West have begun to study the effectiveness of Chinese medicine using more rigorous clinical methods.

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Activity 1: How Much Do You Know About Medicine?
What Do You Think?



human physiology,
sense organs


scientific method


alternative medicines


Since people first populated the Earth, they have sought relief from various illnesses in herbs and plants. China has used herbal medicine, along with other traditional treatments, for at least 4,000 years. In the late 16th century, Li Shizhen published a Compendium of Materia Medica, which listed over 10,000 herbal formulas, many of which are still used today.

Chinese people rely on a combination of Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The two systems operate side by side in modern China, but many people prefer the traditional treatments of acupuncture, herbal medicines, healing massages and other treatments. The fusion of the two traditions offers optimum choices for healing.

Similarly, Western medicine is beginning to acknowledge the benefits of other traditions. In fact, many of the drugs prescribed by American doctors are derived from ancient plants and herbs used by healers in other cultures.

Try this Quiz!

Try this matching quiz to see how much you know about medicines old and new. Choose from the answers A, B, C or D to match the descriptions 1 through 4 below.

    A. aspirin B. taxol C. ephedrine D. digitalis

  1. The bark of the Pacific yew tree produces this drug, found to have cancer-fighting properties.

  2. This drug was cultivated for centuries as a relief from hay fever and nasal congestion; it is manufactured synthetically today.

  3. The bark of the willow tree was once prescribed to reduce fevers and alleviate pain. This common painkiller made from salicylates is derived from its chemical makeup.

  4. This drug, derived from the foxglove plant, stimulates weakened hearts and has been used since ancient times.

    The Chinese herbal pharmacopeia is huge. Many of these plants are being studied by Western pharmacologists. See if you can match the herb or plant (E through J) to its recommended use below.

    E. ginseng root F. large-flowering skullcap
        (milk vetch)
    G. ginger
    H. ma huang I. dong quai J. ginko

  5. This culinary plant has long enjoyed a reputation as a medicinal plant that aids digestion and settles upset stomachs; can be used to treat nausea.

  6. Used to restore energy, or chi (Qi). Many Chinese prefer the American variety.

  7. This root of a plant in the carrot family, known to improve circulation in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is becoming popular in the West as a general tonic for women.

  8. Used for centuries, this medicine is from a tree that has fan-shaped leaves. Currently, it is popular in Germany as a treatment for circulatory disorders.

  9. The Chinese would say the roots of this plant "diminish the excessive heat" in the body and "take away the toxins." We might say it relieves fever.

  10. Also known as ephedra, this herb helps relieve symptoms of a cold and is sometimes prescribed for low blood pressure.
  1. B
  2. C
  3. A
  4. D
  5. G
  6. E
  7. I
  8. J
  9. F
  10. H

  • Would you rely more on a herbal medicine that worked for your grandparents, or on a modern drug that had been tested by the FDA and proven to be clinically effective?

  • The goal of Chinese healing is the restoration of balance (the yin-yang principle) in the body. How much do you think the mind/body connection affects the causes and treatments of disease?

  • What can Western and Chinese physicians learn from each other?

  • How much do you think someone's belief that a medicine will work has to do with its effectiveness?


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.